The Right to Exist


(Image courtesy of the Western Regional Advocacy project; numbers are based on national surveys.)

Increasingly cities have sought to sweep the homeless of the streets by criminalizing activities so necessary to survival: the right to sleep, the right to rest, the right to eat, and the right to walk in public places. No public restrooms are provided by the city. There are too few shelter beds and low cost housing units. There are too few jobs to go around. But rather than doing something about the causes of misery, the city seeks to “clean up” its streets by driving people into the bushes and riverbanks, or to the steps of the few churches brave enough to help.

Rally by Richard Call (800x533 web)


The Nashville Homeless Organizing Coalition is working to change this. It is cruel and inhumane to so treat the most vulnerable; it is morally wrong to punish them for problems beyond their abilities to correct; it is against the beliefs of all the major religious traditions to ignore their plight; it is against the the foundations of our government; and it is even financially irresponsible, as punishment is more expensive than care.


No right  is more at the core of the American and English tradition of protecting the individual than the right to exist,  the right to self-preservation, as spoken of by John Locke, who derives from it the other human rights that are so dear to Americans. And it is on this foundation that Jefferson writes in the Declaration “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” The Tennessee Constitution built on this when it sought to protect in its Bill of Rights, originally the first part of the Constitution,  protections on life, liberty, and property. It further states that “The Legislature shall pass no law authorizing imprisonment for debt in civil cases.” Yet people are imprisoned essentially for not being able to pay fines and court costs every day.


People who are homeless have very little money. If you have no money, you cannot pay rent and can’t get a hotel (or only for a brief time). Everyone has a right to exist—to rest, to eat, to use the restroom, to walk and sit on public properties, and to sleep. Yet the homeless are often harassed or arrested for these very activities with the thought that this will drive them away. But this harassment makes their lives worse and makes it more difficult to get out of homelessness, driving them into debt or to prison—contrary to the Tennessee Bill of Rights. People experiencing homelessness have few choices, but they also know if they give in to pressure and go someplace else, they will face the same cycle of harassment. Once ticketed or arrested, unlike the middle class, the homeless can’t pay an attorney or fines if they are levied, so they often end up in contempt of court with another fine they also can’t pay, or with jail time. All of these events cruelly and unnecessarily wreck peoples lives with harassment and worry, and make it more difficult for the homeless to get back on their feet.

Besides the personal cost, the taxpayer often foots the bill, not only for the police who, though they may not want to, are expected to harass people instead of helping them, but for the court costs, attorney’s fees, and sometimes jail time. Multiple misdemeanor offenses for sleeping or sitting in public, especially with a contempt of court citation, can add up to a felony offense, and then it becomes very difficult to find a job, as many employers won’t hire you with a felony offense even if it arises out of only minor offenses. Just getting around the city to deal with the courts takes time and money. It costs far more to turn the homeless unjustly into criminals than it does to care for them. ”We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” – Philip Mangano, former National Homeless policy Czar to President Bush and Obama.

We encourage all people to know their rights better. Here is a handout that may be useful,  in PDF form ( Know Your Rights ). Write to your local newspaper, councilperson, mayor, representatives, senators, governor, President and let them know that criminalization is cruel, unjust, self-defeating, and a waste of money. Help us work to keep peoples lives from being destroyed by an unjust criminal justice system.

Memorial for Jimmy Fulmer, one of some 30 people who die on the street each year in Nashville

In the early morning hours of Thursday, January 3rd, Jimmy Fulmer silently froze to death on the steps of an East Nashville church. A flimsy blanket and a pair of crutches marked his grave. He was only 50 years old.


(Photo courtesy of WSMV Nashville)

Tonight and the next night after that, others are at risk of slowly and silently freezing; of losing their fingers and toes, their dignity and their lives.   In Nashville, there are not enough shelter and transitional housing beds for everyone and the city’s Office of Emergency Management has failed to devise a cold weather emergency plan for those leftoutdoors. Getting into affordable housing is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, and while our brothers and sisters slowly waste away on waiting lists, there are over 24,000 vacant units of housing across Davidson County (2010 Census). Yes, over 24,000.

by Steve Samra6

That’s 6 vacant units for every one un-housed person(4,000 in Nashville). Instead of making some of these units available, some of which are actually owned by our government, our city allows people to die from exposure. Instead of coming up with funding for a housing trust fund, our city creates tax credits for a new convention center. We’re here to say enough. Enough prioritizing entertainment over human life. Enough focusing on charity projects when what the people need is justice. Enough with the bureaucratic entities that meet and talk and budget money for salaries, but don’t show results on the ground. Enough dying, enough apathy, enough pain.

Funeral procession by Autumn Dennis

The solution is not more shelter beds, coat drives, or even Project Homeless Connects which are helpful, but not enough.  The solution is doing what the Homelessness Commission is tasked with doing: to implement a plan, focused on creating more housing, to end homelessness in our community. We know the Commission’s power is limited, but we also know they’re capable of much more than the last 7 years have shown. We want to hold them accountable, but we also want to stand beside them to amplify their voice in the Mayor’s Office and Metro Council. We must ensure that no more people like Jimmy die because of bureaucratic inaction and public apathy. In the coming months and years, we want to see a city that views housing not as a luxury, but as a human right. We want to see a Homelessness Commission that actually implements a viable plan to create more affordable housing. We want to see more vacant homes, apartments, and buildings put to use to save lives. We want to see more churches, mosques, and temples fling open their doors and allow people to live on their property. Yes, live on their property. Jimmy’s death is a testament to our city’s failure. How many more people will die before we all make housing our top priority? How many more people will die before we raise our voices together and demand a better world? That better world starts with us today!

Click here for more on the WSMV coverage of Jimmy’s death.

Click here for the memorial and the action at the Metro Homelessness Commission.